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Social cognitive deficits in autism spectrum disorder

May 6, 2011 3 comments

ResearchBlogging.org One of the hallmarks of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an impairment in social cognitive skills. This manifests in individuals with ADS having trouble orienting their attention towards people. Accordingly, they also show deficits orienting their attention in response to social cues from others, such as eye gaze, head turns and pointing gestures.

Understanding the social cognitive impairments associated with ASD has been challenging in that studies set in naturalistic settings often reveal the deficit but lab experiments performed on computers don’t.

For example, some naturalistic studies have looked at home movies of infants and found that those later diagnosed with ASD showed less social orienting and were less responsive to cues from others to orient to objects. For example, if their mom was in the room, they would look at her a lot less and they’d also be less likely to respond when their mothers tried to direct their attention to a toy in the room by looking or pointing at it.

However, people with ASD have been shown to respond to non-naturalistic social cues in the lab. Social orienting has been frequently been tested by use of a variation on Michael Posner’s spatial cueing paradigm. This works as follows:

1. Participants are seated in front of a computer
2. A stimulus – a pair of eyes gazing to either side (or straight ahead) or arrows pointing to either side or neither – appears on the screen
3. Shortly after, a stimulus (the target object) appears to one side or the other, either on the side which the eyes or arrows were pointing towards or the opposite side.
4. Participants have to indicate which side the target object appeared on by pressing either a right or left button.
5. Performance on the task is assessed by measuring the amount of time it takes to participants to press the button indicating on which side the target appeared. Most participants, including ASD patients, are as quick with the gaze cue (the eyes) as with the arrow cue.

Posner cue paradigm

(The left side of the above figure shows a single trial (with “directional eyes”), in which participants first see a fixation cross, then one of four directional/non-directional stimuli, after which the target appears either on the same side indicated by the cue or the opposite side. Participants need to indicate which side a target stimulus appeared on by pushing a button. The right side shows the three other trial types (from top to bottom): neutral arrow, directional arrow, neutral eyes)

Past studies have shown that people orient faster to cued (like in the left side of the above figure) versus noncued locations, known as the facilitation effect. Previous studies using this task have produced inconsistent results, but most of them have shown ASD populations performing comparably to non-ASD populations.

In this study, researchers used the above-described cue task to examine the neural mechanisms underlying social orienting in ASD, with the hope that if there were no behavioral differences, neural activity might reveal that ASD individuals are performing the task differently. Other studies have shown that non-ASD populations treat social and non-social cue stimuli differently. It was hoped that neural activity revealed in this study would shed light on the discrepancies in behavioral results for ASD populations in lab versus computer settings.

Results
In terms of behavior, both the control and the ASD group showed quicker responses for gaze and arrow cues with no between group difference, which is consistent with previous lab studies.

However, neural activation patterns showed significant group differences. The control group showed greater activation for social vs. nonsocial cues in many different brain regions, with gaze (eyeball) cues eliciting increased activity in many frontoparietal areas, supporting the idea that neurotypical brains treat social stimuli different from non-social stimuli. The ASD group, on the other hand, showed much less difference in neural activation between social vs. non-social cues. Although these differences in neural activation are too numerous to cover here, one region of interest, superior temporal sulcus (STS), stood out. The STS has been shown to be associated with the perception of eye gaze and other work has suggested the region may be involved in understanding the intentions and mental states of others. In this study, ASD individuals showed decreased STS in the gaze cue condition (versus controls). This data suggests that the STS may not be sensitive toward the social significance of eye gaze in ASD individuals.

Implications
The authors point out that although ASD individuals don’t seem to rely on the same neural circuitry to perceive social cues such as eye gaze, they have found a way to use the low-level perceptual information available in social cues to adapt a strategy that allows them to discern that gaze direction conveys meaning about the environment. That being said, ASD individuals mostly don’t do this very well in more naturalistic environments. So, although this strategy might work in a scanner with “cartoon” eyes and where there are no environmental distractions, it’s unlikely that ASD individuals could adapt this strategy in a naturalistic environment. On the contrary, one could also frame these results from the perspective of the ASD individual; that is, given the non-naturalistic environment of the scanner, and the fact that the task demands were very simple and not dependent on social cognitive processing, why should non-ASD individuals treat the gaze vs. arrow stimuli differently? Why not just rely on low-level information and thus expend less cognitive energy? It’s a good example of the automaticity of social cognitive processes. Give humans a set of cartoon eyeballs to look at and they can’t help but process these as distinct from something non-social.

An additional take away from this paper is that even when one finds no behavioral differences between groups, there might be some interesting differences in neural activity worth exploring via fMRI or EEG.

References

Greene DJ, Colich N, Iacoboni M, Zaidel E, Bookheimer SY, & Dapretto M (2011). Atypical neural networks for social orienting in autism spectrum disorders. NeuroImage, 56 (1), 354-62 PMID: 21334443

Love in the time of oxytocin research

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Often referred to as the “love drug” or “love hormone”, oxytocin has attracted increasing interest from researchers in recent years. It was originally shown to modulate aspects of social attachment and pair bonding in animals such as the female prairie vole, whose monogamous nature is dependent on oxytocin. Recent research in humans has shown that oxytocin increases trust behavior in economic exchanges and increases perception of trustworthiness in human faces, as well as promoting emotion recognition and altruism. This evidence inspired hopes among some, particularly in the mainstream media, that science might have found a possible pharmacological target for humans who show deficits in prosocial behavior.

But recent evidence has complicated the narrative a bit.

Research has shown that oxytocin plays a role in increased emotional reactivity to both positive and negative social cues. For example, one study from 2009 (Shamay-Tsoory et al) had participants engage in a game of chance with another player (the actor). In one condition, the actor was made to win more than the participant, evoking feelings of envy in the participant. In another condition, the actor was made to lose more than the participant, evoking feelings of “schaudenfrude” or gloating. Participants who were administered oxytocin before playing showed increases in both envy and schaudenfrude (if oxytocin was involved only in enhancing prosocial behavior, we would expect to see the opposite result.) Other research has shown oxytocin increased approach behavior or affiliative drive rather than regulating positive or negative responding per se. And one recent study showed that oxycotin led humans to self-sacrifice for their own group while showing increased aggression toward out-group members. The gist of this set of findings is that oxytocin doesn’t seem to bias individuals toward the positive, but rather can magnify whatever “stimuli” happens to be in someone’s attentional spotlight, be it bad or good, thereby generating an increase in corresponding positive or negative emotional responses.

Jennifer Bartz and colleagues (2010) were curious to explore whether oxytocin could “correct” deficits in pro-social behavior in individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD), a population famous for emotional instability, extreme impulsive behavior and identity confusion. People with BPD tend to be involved in intense, emotionally volatile relationships characterized by frequent arguing, repeated breakups and extreme aggression. This behavior often extends beyond their romantic relationships, as BPD individuals have also been shown to have difficulty cooperating with strangers. The existing body of research, Bartz et al suggested, offers up contrary predictions. On the one hand, oxytocin could be helpful in reducing the negative behaviors normally associated with BPD in favor of kinder, gentler behavior towards others. Alternatively, oxytocin might have increasingly negative effects for people with BPD, who are chronically concerned with (lack of) trust and abandonment and have difficulty cooperating with others. They’re essentially fixed in a constitutively negative state when it comes to social interactions and increased oxytocin could decrease prosocial behavior even further. Additionally (or alternatively), the oxytocin system might be dysregulated in BPD and could produce different responses (vs. control) to oxytocin as a result.

Bartz and company designed an experiment in which the participant was paired with a partner (in reality, a virtual “computer” partner) to engage in an economic game. In this game, the participant was to make one of two choices that involved financial rewards. The catch was that the amount of the reward was also dependent upon the choice that their “partner” made.

Both players clearly make the most money if they both choose strategy A. But because the player has to make the choice before the partner, the decision involves an element of trust (if your partner defects, you get nothing. If your partner trusts you and you defect, you get $4 and she gets nothing.)

So, what did they find?

Results showed the following:

1. BPD people trusted their partners in an economic game less after they received oxycotin than when they received a placebo.
2. Additionally, when asked if they would be more likely to make a hypothetical decision that would punish their partner, even when they knew their partner had extended trust toward them, they were more likely to punish after Oxytocin than placebo.

Administration of oxytocin to BPD individuals actually decreased pro-social behavior (and increased antisocial behavior). As the experimenters suggest, increasing the salience of a social cue that makes trust issues salient may have caused BPD participants to rely on their normal strategy for trust-dependent social interactions; that is, defect and punish the partner. Or it might have motivated approach/affiliative behaviors which triggered memory of past experiences gone awry and set off chronic and ever-present concerns about trust and rejection (e.g. “reject and punish them before they can do the same to me.”). Finally, the experimenters suggest the possibility that the oxytocin system itself may be dysregulated.

In short, the evidence doesn’t offer overwhelming support for the notion that exogenously-administered oxytocin will be a useful clinical treatment for people with pro-social deficits, such as those with BPD. Additionally, it’s difficult to imagine long-term benefits of oxytocin given that it’s half life when administered intranasally is only about three minutes. It’s been said that the most of the real action with regards to oxytocin is on the receptor end.

References:
Bartz, J., Simeon, D., Hamilton, H., Kim, S. Crystal, S., Braun, A., Vincens, V., & Hollander, E. Oxytocin can hinder trust and cooperation in borderline personality disorder. (2010). Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience

Shamay-Tsoory SG, Fischer M, Dvash J, Harari H, Perach-Bloom N, Levkovitz Y (November 2009). “Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases envy and schadenfreude (gloating)”. Biological Psychiatry 66 (9): 864–70.

Are attractive people really more trustworthy?

July 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Imagine the following scenario: you’re sharing a table with a stranger at a coffee shop. You’ve exchanged a few pleasantries with the person but not much else. You need to go to the bathroom and would like to leave your laptop and bag at the table while you’re gone. Can you trust your new, and perhaps only temporary, acquantaince not to walk off with your stuff? Most people would base such a decision on “a gut feeling.” But, upon what basis? Back in 2006, researchers from Rice University examined a factor that might play a role in whether you might feel comfortable sashaying to the john sans laptop: the person’s attractiveness. Basically, is she/he hot or not?

Past research has shown that people exhibit considerable levels of trust for strangers and that this trust is often made via a snap judgment based on minimal information. Psychologists at Rice were curious to know (1) if others’ attractiveness might serve as a basis for these snap judgments, (2) if these judgments were accurate and (3) if attractive people are the beneficiaries of others’ heightened trust for them.

Upon arriving for their experimental session, participants posed for four photos, of which they picked one which would be used in a series of trust games. The trust game worked as such: A participant was given $10. Seated in front of a computer, he was then shown pictures of other students, one at at time, to whom he was to give part, or all, of the $10. The recipient would receive triple whatever the participant chose to give, and would then return as much as he wanted back to the participant. For example, if the participant gave $10, then the recipient would get $30. If he wanted to be fair, the recipient could give $15 back to the participant, leaving them both with $15 (the best and most equitable solution). Conversely, the recipient could return nothing to the participant, leaving him with $0. The amount given by the participant really depends on how much he trusts the recipient to return an equitable amount to him. Trust can then be measured by the amount the participant chooses to give to the recipient. After playing the trust games, participants rated all of the photos of other students on a number of different traits, including attractiveness.

So, did participants trust good looking people more? The beauties made out, receiving more from participants, on average, then their less good looking peers. But were participants correct to trust good looking people more? Yes, they were. Attractive people seemed to reciprocate with higher amounts of money compared to those less attractive. But there was an interesting twist here. The more attractive the participant, the higher the recipients expectations were, such that if they didn’t receive what they expected from an “attractive” participant, they would enforce a “beauty penalty” by returning less.

These results aren’t particularly surprising, given similar research showing the multitude of ways in which attractiveness can positively modulate people’s perception of others. Given the above findings, one might be prudent to surmise that the more physically attractive candidate in a political race, all else being equal, should be more likely to win than lose. However, experimental results are mixed. On the one hand, Budesheim et al. (1994) found that physical attractiveness influenced candidate evaluation despite the provision of information about the candidate’s policy stances and personality characteristics. But, on the other hand, Rosenberg et al. (1991) found no relationship between physical attractiveness and beliefs that a candidate would make a reasonable political leader. Similarly, Sigelman and colleagues (1987) found no relationship between physical attractiveness and vote choice. And Riggle et al. (1992) found that physical attractiveness had an effect when no other candidate information was present, but failed to have an effect when policy information about the candidate was provided.

References
Budesheim TL, DePaola SJ. Beauty or the beast? The effects of appearance, personality, and issue information on evaluations of political candidates. Pers Soc Psych Bull 1994;20:339–348.

Rosenberg SW, Kahn S, Tran T, Lee MT. Creating a political image: Shaping appearance and manipulating the vote. Polit Behav 1991;13:345–367.

Sigelman L, Sigelman CK, Fowler C. A bird of a different feather? An experimental investigation of physical attractiveness and the electability of female candidates. Soc Psych Quart 1987;50:32–43.

Riggle ED, Ottati VC, Wyer RS, Kuklinski J, Schwarz N. Bases of political judgments: The role of stereotypic and nonstereotypic information. Polit Behav 1992;14:67–87

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